The Grafenegg Festival: A programme as eclectic as its quirky castle venue

Alexandra Coghlan takes a trip to Austria to sample the delights of this year's Grafenegg Festival, curated by the pianist Rudolf Buchbinder.

The Grafenegg Festival
16 August - 8 September 2013

England might have given the classical world country house opera, opening up the gardens and gazebos of our finest stately homes to picnicking music-lovers each summer, but Austria has gone one better. The Grafenegg Festival, taking place annually in the beautiful Danube valley of Wachau, raises an important question: why content yourself with a country house when you could have a castle instead?

And what a castle it is. Schloss Grafenegg’s origins may be sixteenth-century, but it was the nineteenth-century that transformed it into what it is today – an architectural Tardis. August Ferdinand, Earl Breuner-Eneckevoirth, had a vision for a home not bounded by period of style but embracing all in a historical riot of crenellation, castellation and wood-panelling. From neo-renaissanance to Biedermeier it’s all here, in a Gothic fantasy come to life. The castle itself is at the centre of the Grafenegg estate which has been home to the festival since 2007. As audiences have grown so has the festival, building the futuristic outdoor amphitheatre the Wolkenturm (“Cloud-Tower”), a new indoor auditorium, and converting the original stables into yet another concert-hall.

And the music has grown at the same pace. Curated by Rudolf Buchbinder, Austria’s finest pianist, this year’s festival artists include the Vienna Philharmonic, Valery Gergiev, Charles Dutoit, Diana Damrau, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Janine Jansen, Semyon Bychkov and the Labeque sisters. It’s an impressive line-up by anyone’s standards, and discovered in this quiet, storybook-fantasy of a valley in Lower Austria it has the additional appeal of context. Vienna and Salzburg may have their cultural treasures, but they also have crowds and tourists. Grafenegg, by contrast, is a peaceful kingdom indeed.

Part of the festival’s appeal is the variety of its programme, reflecting the eclectic interests of the castle’s original founder in the breadth of the programming. In one weekend we went from the epic spectacle of Mahler’s Third Symphony, to the irreverent virtuosity of the 12 Cellos of the Berlin Philharmonic (programming Burt Bacharach alongside Purcell) and a perfectly-formed chamber recital juxtaposing the familiar and the unknown.

The Mahler, framed in the dramatic lines of the Wolkenturm, was a chance to hear both Grafenegg’s resident festival orchestra – Vienna’s Tonkünstler Orchestra – and exciting young Colombian conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada, who will be making his debut with the LSO next season. The Tonkünstler have grown tremendously in recent years, finally stepping out of the shadow of their Viennese orchestral competition. Performing this symphony was a major milestone in their development. Aided by the Vienna Boys Choir and the women of the Wiener Singverein they conjured a vivid vision of the composer’s bucolic rhapsody.

The strings in particular brought a warmth and connectedness to their playing that was striking in an outdoor acoustic, and if woodwind couldn’t quite match them for unanimity they did yield some strong soloists, particularly the off-stage post-horn who more than met the demands of the third movement. Mezzo soloist Elisabeth Kulman was perhaps an unusual choice for Mahler, favouring an unusually straight tone, but it projected beautifully in the space and the clarity helped throw focus back to the all-important texts.

From a Mahlerian symphony orchestra we downsized the next night to just a cello section. The 12 cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic have been playing as an ensemble in their own right for over 40 years and have the showmanship to prove it. More than just a novelty act, their combination of lighthearted humour and virtuosity makes them the King’s Singers of the instrumental world, capable of playing any amount of Burt Bacharach without becoming cheap. The ensemble have commissioned throughout their history, creating a huge catalogue of works for the current group to draw on. Here, we saw them add another to their collection in the form of Brett Dean’s 12 Angry Men. Grafenegg’s 2013 composer in residence drew heavily on the Sidney Lumet film for a work which sets up a narrative framework for an exercise in musical structure and development. Each assigned a character, the cellists are heard to persuade, argue, agree and interact in phrases charged with rhetorical intent. Dean’s writing prevents his concept becoming too literal, and the densely contrapuntal result is one that begs for an immediate second-hearing.

It’s rare that we get to hear a single instrument used in so many different ways, but by limiting themselves to just cellos this ensemble are forced to explore the limits of conventional textures and techniques. An arrangement of Ravel’s Pavane pour une Infante defunte drew on gauzy harmonics to mimic (or even outdo) the delicacy of the original, while Boris Blacher’s Blues, Espagnola und Rumba Philharmonica transformed the players into a single strumming guitar, pulsing with percussive energy. But it was Juan Tizol’s reworking of Duke Ellington’s Caravan that demanded most of the players, drawing an uncanny impression of vocal or trumpet scatting from the strings.

For pure musical pleasure however it was the simplest, smallest concert of the festival that prevailed. Combining the young British Doric Quartet with Brett Dean (seen here both as composer and violist), it paired Dean’s own Epitaphs with Brahms’ Quintet No. 2 in G major. Dean’s melodic language is inscrutable, demanding rather than desiring multiple listens, but as miniature soundscapes his Epitaphs offer plenty to a first-time audience. The other-worldly ostinato of the opening, the fractious counterpoint for all five instruments in II, the shifting clouds of harmonic colour in V, all lingered in the ears as sonic fragments.

The Doric have a technical assurance that leaves them completely free to shape the intent of their music, and the Brahms – thick with the addition of the extra viola – offered us the chance to hear their musical ideas as well as see their considerable skill. Theirs is an ardent, engaged sound well-suited to this repertoire, but they also proved themselves capable of finding more restraint for the Adagio. Gradually thawing out during the Allegretto, they grew to a pacy climax in the Vivace, bounding to the finish-line.

In Grafenegg, Buchbinder has created a festival as eclectic as the castle venue itself. You might be confronted or horrified by your encounters here (whether architectural or musical) but you won’t be indifferent. Austria may be a by-word for musical conservatism, but there’s nothing middle-of-the-road about this quirky, endearing festival. 

Schloss Grafenegg, the sixteenth century castle which hosts the festival.
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Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser